Senate OKs election-related bills


LITTLE ROCK —The Senate approved measures Saturday that would create a Voter Integrity Unit within the secretary of state’s office and make destruction of a ballot or ballot materials a felony, punishable by up to six years in prison.

The House passed a bill that would allow the sale of unpasteurized milk in Arkansas.

Both chambers convened a rare weekend session Saturday as lawmakers work to clear a backlog of legislation pending action in an attempt to meet an April 19 deadline for completing the business of the regular session. Final adjournment is set for May 17.

Senate Bill 719 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Greenwood, which would create a four member Voter Integrity Unit passed 30-5 in the Senate and goes to the House.

The unit would include the director of the secretary of state’s elections division as chairman, the attorney for the secretary of state’s office, one employee of the elections division and one state capitol police officer.

The unit would investigate any complaint filed with the state Board of Election Commissioners alleging voter irregularities or fraud. The unit would have the authority to hold hearings, seek witness testimony and present evidence. It would refer allegations to a prosecutor or the state police, King said.

The unit also would have to report any investigation findings to the the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committees in both the House and Senate.

In presenting the bill, King referred to the case of former state Rep. Hudson Hallum as an example of voter fraud in the state but said the proposal was not filed directly in response to that one particular incident.

“Carroll County has had a history of election irregularities that can’t be explained,” said King, who served on the Carroll County Election Commission for a time.

Hallum, a Democrat from Marion, resigned his House seat last year after pleading guilty to a federal vote fraud charge stemming from a 2011 special election which Hallum won.

Also Saturday, the Senate approved King’s SB 961, which would make the destruction of ballot or ballot materials a felony, punishable by one to six years in prison, and up to a $10,000 fine. It passed 35-0 and goes to the House.

Negligent homicide

SB 874 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, which would add sleep deprivation, or fatigue, to the negligent homicide statute. The bill passed 23-2 and goes to the House.

Under the bill, police and prosecutors would have to prove that a person charged with negligent homicide involving a traffic death had been awake for at least 24 hours, and that he or she was aware of it and deliberately deprived himself or herself of sleep.

“This is for someone who gets behind the wheel … knowing they should not do so,” Rapert said, adding that the law would give police and prosecutors an extra tool under the negligent homicide statute.

A conviction would be a Class B felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

Rapert said police in Conway and Conway County have investigated cases where the driver of a car involved in a fatal accident had been awake for more than 24 hours and in once case the driver bragged about it before driving.

Raw milk sales

In the House, House Bill 1536 to allow the sale of unpasteurized milk in the state passed on a 60-19 vote and goes to the Senate.

Under the bill by Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, unpasteurized milk could be sold legally at dairy farms provided monthly*** sales do not exceed 500 gallons.

The bill would require that warnings be posted at the point of sale and on milk containers informing consumers that the milk has not been pasteurized and that the milk and the farm have not been inspected by the state.

Alexander told House members he is a “city boy” and had never tasted raw milk until Friday, but he said he supports letting adults make decisions for themselves.

“This is a liberty issue,” he said.

Speaking against the bill, Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Morrilton, said the state Department of Health, the state Department of Agriculture, the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the Arkansas Milk Stabilization Board and the Dairy Farmers of America all oppose it. He said milk that is not pasteurized can contain dangerous pathogens.

“I personally don’t want to be responsible for voting for something that could give even one child in Arkansas E. coli,” he said.

But Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, said as long as people know the risks involved, they should be able to buy raw milk.

“I’m asking you today to vote for freedom,” he said.

As shout of “Freedom!” was heard from the House floor as members cast their ballots.

Primate registration

The Senate also passed HB 1391 by Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, which would require owners of primates to register their animals with the county sheriff’s office.

The bill aligns the state’s standards for caring for primates with those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It passed 35-0 and goes to the governor.

ATRS contribution rate

The House voted 58-22 to approve SB 162 by Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, which would allow the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System to raise the employer contribution rate from 14 percent to 15 percent if necessary to keep the system fiscally sound, but House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, ordered that the bill not be transmitted back to the Senate.

The House approved the bill after rejecting a motion by Rep. Duncan Baird, R-Lowell, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, to refer the bill back to that committee. Baird said the bill as written could cost the state $23 million a year in general revenue and needed further study. Carter told reporters later he wanted to keep the bill in the House for now so questions about its fiscal impact could be answered.

Other House action

Other bills the House approved included:

—HB 1999 by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, which would limit the number of special license plates available through the state Department of Finance and Administration to the number in effect on Jan. 1, 2014. It also would require DF&A to discontinue any plate currently in circulation if fewer than 500 are in use, but it would allow the people who have the discontinued plates to continue using them for up to 10 years. The bill passed 78-6 and goes to the Senate.

—HB 2039 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, which would allow high schools across the state to take part, if they choose, in the College and Career Coaches Program, currently a pilot program that hires people to work with high school students to prepare them for college or careers. The bill passed 54-14 and goes to the Senate.

—HB 1761 by Rep. James Ratliff, D-Imboden, which would allow the Educational Excellence Trust Fund to be used to increase teachers’ pay for experience or advanced degrees. The bill passed 52-29 and goes to the Senate.

—SB 258 by Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, which would require the state Parole Board to issue a warrant for the arrest of a parolee who has committed a violent or sexual felony while on parole. The bill passed 82-2 and goes to the governor.

—SB 260 by Sanders, which would require the state Department of Community Correction to prepare a report on the number of inmates under supervision for the last five years who would be considered repeat offenders under the definition of recidivism. It also would change that definition to include people who are re-arrested after release, regardless of whether they have been convicted. The bill passed 54-24 and goes to the Senate.

Polling places

Elsewhere Saturday, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee endorsed an amended version of HB 1712 by Rep. Ken Bragg, which would prohibit anyone other than voters and authorized officials from being present in a polling place during voting. The bill originally included a ban on using an electronic device to take a photo of a ballot, but Bragg said he removed that language from the bill after concerns were raised that it might violate the First Amendment. The bill goes to the Senate.

The committee also endorsed HB 1855 by Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, which would make prosecuting attorney elections nonpartisan. The bill goes to the Senate.

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***This article has been updated from its original version because of a correction. Click here to view the correction notice.